— In the two months since North Carolina’s legislature laid off most of its
prison chaplains, Betty Brown, director of prison chaplaincy services, has been
crisscrossing the state searching for volunteers who can attend to the
religious needs of Native American, Wiccan and Rastafarian prisoners.
State legislators had assumed volunteer ministries would jump in and help
prisoners meet the ritual and devotional needs of their faiths. But so far,
that hasn’t happened.
“It’s been tough locating volunteers for those faith groups,” said Brown, whose
department lost 26 full-time prison chaplains as part of an effort to close a
$2.6 billion state budget gap.
Across the nation, religious life behind bars is changing as correctional
departments face budget cuts along with other state agencies. Some states like
North Carolina have seen outright cuts. In other states, vacancies due to
hiring freezes mean no replacements for chaplains who die or retire.
Gary Friedman, spokesman for the
American Correctional Chaplains Association, said his organization distributes
brochures to explain to legislators mulling cuts the benefits of retaining
“Chaplains are getting caught up in all these budget reductions and staff
reductions,” he said. “It’s going on all over the country.”
Some states, such as Texas, were able to spare
chaplains in the budget negotiations.
But in other states, prison chaplains are seeing increasing workloads in tough
economic times, even as the religious diversity of inmates continues to grow.
In California, where about 130 prison
chaplains are currently employed, there are three dozen vacancies.
At the California Men’s Colony, a medium- and minimum-security prison in San Luis Obispo, Rabbi Lon Moskowitz, the
Jewish chaplain, is helping fulfill the duties of a Muslim chaplain who died a
few months ago.
“Twice a month … I oversee their Juma prayer,” he said.
During Passover and summer solstice observances, he said, some Jewish and
Native American inmates were unable to attend communal events due to lockdowns
in their yards prompted by budget-related shortages in guards.
“They had to observe their religious service within their assigned housing
unit,” said Lt. Dean Spears, a spokesman for the facility.
Indiana’s prisons — which have nine vacancies among 37 chaplain positions —
have had similar restrictions when overseen by skeleton crews at times when
inmates might have attended chapel, said Stephen Hall, director of religious
services for the Indiana Department of Correction.
When there’s a drastic cut in chaplains, as in North Carolina, questions arise about
everyday religious concerns as well as special or weekly observances.
“Lay people tend to think chaplains perform services on holy days,” said D.
Craig Horn, a North Carolina legislator who opposed his
state’s chaplaincy cuts. “My view is a professional chaplain adds stability and
has a tremendous impact on promoting calm and providing prisoners with
counseling and direction.”
A onetime church volunteer who helped prisoners prepare for the world outside,
Horn also knows that volunteers aren’t trained to do the kind of interfaith
work that chaplains provide daily — whether it’s kosher meals for Jews, prayer
rugs for Muslims, or sage and sweet grass for American Indians to burn as they
offer praise to the Four Winds.
Pat Nolan, vice president of Prison Fellowship, said chaplains are the ones
most likely to help inmates after riots, rapes and other traumatic incidents or
to facilitate special requests — like a phone call from a relative near death.
“For the safety of the institution, it’s important that persons going through
those horrible situations have someone to help them to defuse the situation,”
he said. “Otherwise, tension can get really high or out of control.”
Nolan said his evangelical organization — which also has faced its own staff
cuts due to the economy — urged volunteers to contact legislators and fight for
the Texas chaplains.
Carolina, there simply wasn’t time: “It was a done deal before we
could mobilize anybody.”
But the well-being and safety of prisoners aren’t the only reasons to keep
chaplains. There are legal issues too, state prison officials say.
The Religious Land Use and Institutionalized Persons Act of 2000 puts
government agencies on alert that they can’t get in the way of the free
religious practice of prisoners. With no professional chaplains left in North Carolina’s medium and
minimum-security prisons, that legal requirement has become the biggest
headache for Brown, the prison chaplaincy director.
Some worry the civil rights of prisoners may be violated by volunteer Christian
ministries who, however sincere, may also be motivated to make converts.
“Inmates have a right to practice their faith while they’re incarcerated,” said
Mark Reamer, a Roman Catholic priest who has celebrated Mass at a Raleigh prison for the past 16
years. “Chaplains ensure a certain fairness.”
Tom O’Connor, a former Oregon prison chaplain who runs the company Transforming
Corrections, said chaplains have to advocate more effectively about their
contributions — not only supporting inmates but mobilizing volunteers and
helping with re-entry programs that can reduce recidivism.
“Most of these prisoners are going to get out,” said Horn, the North Carolina state legislator. “We don’t want them to come
back. That would be a lousy investment. The state of North Carolina needs to protect its investment.”